Caleb Williams provided a lot to like about USC in win over UCLA

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AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

There was nothing Caleb Williams couldn’t do. He led the way, carrying his team as he has during his breakout sophomore year. In a matchup featuring stars on both sides, Williams shone the brightest. The story of this game was Caleb Williams and a high-powered offense. This was perhaps the best he’s played as a Trojan — and arguably the best he’s played in his glittering career. An annual meeting with the Bruins means a little more for the Trojans than any other game on their schedule.

Playing this well, against their crosstown rivals, in a nationally televised game, will unequivocally boost their national perception. This was the type of performance that could change their season and convince the committee that USC belongs in the playoffs. Williams and the Trojans are explosive and dangerous. They have proven they’re good enough to beat anyone. There are certain things Williams can do on the field that nobody can replicate. He can really play. 

The first half was a head-shaking moment. It started a little rocky. USC’s first three drives ended with a turnover on downs, a missed field goal and an interception thrown by Williams. They were outplayed, outsmarted and outschemed. The good part is, in reality, it didn’t matter. There was a second-half turnaround, a momentum swift, a rally of epic proportions that would erase USC’s slow start after falling behind 14-0. Most of his big plays came in the second half, where the Trojans accumulated more yards and piled up points in a hurry. 

It was a manifestation of what was a gritty, hard-fought game with UCLA. And you expected nothing less than a thrilling, anxiety-fueling game from two teams that refuse to hand anyone a win. It was not an offensive work of art to start. But it was a masterpiece by the Trojans, especially from Williams and the offense. And while the Bruins provided a different test with their physicality, size and length, USC was the better team in the second half, outplaying the Bruins on their home field, teasing just enough to make you think that the Trojans might actually be able to muscle their way into playoff contention. 

It was dazzling, the way he marched his team down the Rose Bowl field. It was impressive, the way he commanded the offense, maintained his composure and played at an elite level. He was ultra-efficient. He showed off his cannon of an arm, throwing on the run, across his body, into tight windows. He made big play after big play, launching a pass on the money to Jordan Addison midway through the third to give USC its first lead, 27-24. He had to fight on and hard to earn the respect he has achieved this season. That resilience is exactly why he has enjoyed a wonderful season. That mental toughness is why the Trojans are thinking national title for the first time in nearly two decades.  

The Trojans’ 10-win turnaround is nothing short of remarkable, and Wiliams’ steady arm and huge legs are an enormous part of this team’s recent success. The performance he turned in Saturday night was season-defining, legendary, Heisman-worthy. The blue-chip quarterback who is one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy balled out, fired darts all over the field for 470 yards and two touchdowns, ran wild for 32 yards and a score on the ground. His star has brightened in recent weeks given his talent level and the flashes of production he showed, while the spotlight has also been burning brightly on the offensive guru Lincoln Riley. 

This season has been a total reversal of the last one, starting with Williams’ electric plays and Riley’s savviness, offensive mindset. The Riley hiring, paired with Williams’ ascension and brilliance, were the blueprints for building a national power. Their record is more impressive when you consider that the program finished a horrid 4-8, the school’s worst since 1991 when USC went 3-8. But now it’s becoming more likely that Williams might be the best QB in the country. It’s also fair to wonder, after all this, whether such a quarterback of Williams’ caliber can rocket to the top of the Heisman race and emerge as the nation’s top dual-threat passer. 

The guy has looked almost unbeatable in his career with USC and can continue to make his case for the Heisman Trophy over the next two weeks. He’s a strong choice. That can’t be questioned. It just can’t. It’s a supportive narrative, given his physical reliability and the sky-high expectations he face quarterbacking a program with an identity that has long been built on an efficient brand of football that emphasizes great offense and overall tenacity. 

There are elements of Williams’ game that remind you of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — his mobility, his arm strength, his incredible speed, his poise in the pocket, his acceleration to scramble out of the pocket and creativity to extend plays. He certainly borrowed a page out of Mahomes’ playbook to accelerate his growth, to make a big leap with real weapons around him and shine even brighter than the week before. No matter who’s chasing him down, his team benefits from his natural abilities to generate explosive plays. Even while under duress, he still finds ways to keep plays alive with his nimble footwork. It’s insane, more than anything. 

The 2022 season has been a promising one, as USC used a bevy of big plays to secure bragging rights over UCLA. And after Williams’ exhilarating, eye-popping performance, the Heisman hype grows and could propel him to the stiff-armed trophy. This high-flying 48-45 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl was a statement by USC. There’s a more-than-reasonable chance the Trojans make a run at the national championship. Despite a maddening loss to the Utah Utes, USC is very much alive for a berth into the College Football Playoff. Now the Trojans are 10-1 and find themselves in good position to grab a top four spot. Saturday’s game marked the official start to the resurrection of a premier program. No team checks more title contender boxes. And Williams is a huge reason for that. In vintage fashion, the strong-armed quarterback willed his team downfield. 

Watching him all season long, he’s done some special stuff on the field. He’s a load to handle. The increasing growth and maturity that he show has piqued our interest. The wowed athleticism he displays has captivated the college football universe. The value is undeniable. His presence around the team benefits USC tremendously. More than anybody, Williams has been at the center of this team’s changing identity and plays a central role in USC’s drastic turnaround. This is the Caleb Williams show, and he’s as gifted as everyone hoped, and his team’s progress is defined by how well he plays. 

He’s doing it all. There’s already an aura surrounding Williams that’s too strong to ignore. His impact is undeniable, and he’s taken a step forward into superstardom, he’s evolved into such a physical specimen. He’s fearless. He’s mentally tough. He is willing to put his body in harms way and plays with a high motor. And in large part because he showcases jaw-dropping physical traits at his respective program, it’s almost preposterous to overlook anything USC has done and essentially dismiss the team from the playoff conversation entirely. It’s his dynamic skills and outstanding instincts that keeps the Trojans in the game and keeps opposing defenses guessing. It’s their wide array of weaponry that can take them wherever they want to go. 

This is beginning to look a lot like USC football again. This is starting to feel like USC football again. For stretches this season, the Trojans have played some respectable football, particularly on the offensive side of the ball where they have looked nearly impossible to stop. Coached by the innovative Riley and quarterbacked by the exciting Williams, USC has had flashes of dominance, both through the air and on the ground. The balk of the talent on this roster lives on the offense. And so these Trojans haven’t always needed defensive stops to prevail. 

They gave up 507 yards of offense but were plus-three in turnovers and would certainly get a game-ending stop by forcing a turnover. They’re winning the turnover battle. The turnover margin is a huge reason the defense can get off the field. And, as a result, the offense has been able to construct long drives and stay on the field. This all puts the Trojans at a surprising place for a program that was at a crossroads.

If they can maintain this level of play next weekend against Notre Dame and then translate their dominance into the Pac-12 Championship game, it’ll be time to re-evaluate this team. The upshot of the Trojans’ resurgence is evident, including the consistent, incremental progress from their stud quarterback who continues to flex his muscles and demonstrate his ability to manipulate the game. Pretty soon he might be striking the iconic Heisman pose. 

This continues to reinforce the notion that the Trojans are quickly becoming a total reinvention of what they used to be. This feels like a rebirth in a season where USC has redefined the term. It’s staggering how far this group has come from this team last year when everybody was screaming for Clay Helton to be fired. This team now is built the right way. It is coached the right way. And the Trojans are for real. They’re not faking it.

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Jonathan Mathis as known as The Sports Judge is the founder of SoCalChronicle. He is a professional Sports writer, contributor, Youtuber, podcaster @ ASAP Network, and co-host of Gonzo & The Judge Sports Talk. Follow the [email protected] https://twitter.com/Sportsjudge85

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